Where are all the black people at the Civil War 150th commemorations?!
This question has appeared in multiple formats including Natasha McPherson’s post and comments about that from Kevin Levin and Jimmy Price.
I have been a black participant in the Civil War 150th in part due to my work and in part because I’ve long been interested in the Civil War period. There are likely a multitude of reasons why participation from the African-American community has been lacking but I do not agree with Professor McPherson’s comment that the Civil War was not “our war” (i.e., black Americans).
We have to get to some issues facing a large number of blacks in America. One issue that an acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles brought up at the Future of the Civil War conference back in March is that historical segregation in traveling practices has inhibited some blacks from traveling.
In the 1930s-60s, it was not always clear where people of African descent could eat a hearty meal, sleep, acquire gasoline, get their car repaired, or a range of other issues when traveling on the roads. Sure there was Victor Green’s The Green Book, which was a travel guide published between 1936 and 1964 which was designed to give African American motorists information for comfortable and safe places to room and board during this period of segregation; but, there still would be vast stretches of land where you would be on two lane roads (at best), and perhaps victim to problems. As most Civil War battlefields are located in the South, this was a legitimate concern for black families. Remember, cars weren’t getting 48 miles per gallon like my Toyota Prius does now. It would also be wise for us to remember how cost prohibitive a car was for many folks (white, black, or otherwise) until fairly recently.
What this perhaps did for some folks is create a culture of not traveling. If mom and dad didn’t go anywhere and didn’t take their kids anywhere, the kids grow up and have kids who don’t take their kids anywhere or if they do it is one or two family vacations when the children are young usually to a theme park. Generations were created of folks staying near or at home.
Another issue is there was prejudiced history in the Jim Crow era. The experiences and contributions of wartime blacks in the North, South, and West were not included in history books. My mom, a product of a segregated school system, often told people in my youth and her 40s, 50s, and early 60s that it was *I* who taught her about black people during the Civil War period because it was not included in their schoolwork of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t mean that she didn’t know about Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman but I mean about United States Colored Troops, enslaved people who escaped and those who didn’t during the antebellum and Civil War period, former slaves who go on to become legislators during Reconstruction. So let’s say the Baby Boomers weren’t told in any great detail about the varied experiences of blacks in Civil War-era America, then their children may or may not hear about it, and then the Baby Boomers grandchildren don’t, etc.
So what can I say at this point, about half-way through the Civil War 150th regarding black participation?
I can say that with the exception of one 150th event, I have seen at least one other black person in the audience. Is this a measurement of success? I don’t think so. However, as Kevin asked, what is?
I can say that our historic sites which 50 years ago would not have touched on the issues facing blacks (or immigrants, Native Americans, women, or children) are doing a better job. One of my favorite events of the 150th was an event I organized at work in 2012, it was not focused on a battle but rather on a series of enslaved families and a plantation owner’s family. Ten African-American volunteers and myself portrayed real enslaved people who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation while a white female volunteer portrayed Mrs. Eppes and through a series of semi- scripted scenarios we portrayed to the audience the different emotions and feelings of people as the U.S. Navy neared the plantation in the spring of 1862. Throughout the weekend we had people from diverse backgrounds show up and interact with the volunteers and our staff in third and first-person interactions. There certainly was no “shame” in our game in giving visitors (and indeed ourselves) insight on how these people lived in 1862.
Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program “Seeking New Shelters” in April 2012.
I can say that in my work and in special events for the 150th that some blacks are showing up and are engaged with questions and serious conversations. I’ve seen this personally and through photos of Civil War 150th programs that I could not attend.
The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia. Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.
Scott Manning has issued a brief little directive we should all take, talk to your black friends and family and create a dialogue about the tough stuff of race, slavery, emancipation, and freedom. Then you can perhaps get them to come with you. Speaking as a black man, I was fortunate to be raised in family who discussed these issues with one another. I was blessed with the capabilities to ask what it was like in the past, though not a slavery and Civil War past. I was fortunate to have been nurtured to use my love of history; however, it took INTERACTION between me, my family, and my friends. This has given me some amazing opportunities to do presentations regarding my own free mixed-race family’s Civil War experiences to enslaved body servants serving Confederate troops to United States Colored Troops during the war and a whole range of other topics from the slave trade through the Freedmen’s Bureau. But no one is simply born with historical knowledge, so foster it within your household (regardless of race) and your own networks.